Thinking about C.S. Lewis

The recent posts from Layman (God in the Dock: Great Stuff from C.S. Lewis) and Metacrock (A Very Respectful Little Essay...) got me reading my C.S. Lewis again. As is the case with many Christians, Lewis was one of the influential thinkers who helped bring me to Christianity, and though I do not read him much any longer, I own (and have read multiple times), most of his books. My personal favourites, should I be forced to choose, would have to be The Great Divorce and Screwtape Letters (the latter being the first of Lewis' books I ever read, the former was the last, and theologically most influential to me personally, though that story will have to wait, I suppose, for another post).

But what linked Layman's and Meta's posts, in my mind, was the title essay Lewis wrote in God in the Dock. Two points were especially compelling to me (because I have experienced it many times myself). The first was how Lewis noted the difficulty one has in communicating with the non-Christian based entirely on the fact that when the Christian apologist uses a word, it contains a very different meaning from that of the non-Christian reader, and much confusion results. The second was the general level of historical scepticism non-Christians had, and not just about Christianity, but about all history (excepting, ironically enough, prehistoric history). In Lewis' words:

"...I learned from the RAF (Royal Air Force) that the English Proletariat is sceptical about History to a degree which academically educated persons can hardly imagine... It seems to me (Lewis) that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic man."
_God in the Dock_, C.S. Lewis, Chapter 12, "God in the Dock", London, England: Fount Paperbacks, 1998, pg. 89

Coupled with this extreme scepticism about historical man, was the great gap in vocabulary. This, I think, was the issue Meta was especially driving at, but at least Lewis demonstrates for us that the problem goes back quite some way.

"...The man who wishes to speak to the uneducated in English must learn their language. It is not enough that he should abstain from using what he regards as 'hard words.' He must discover empirically what words exist in the language of his audience and what they mean in that language...
The popular English language, then, simply has to be learned by him who would preach to the English: just as a missionary learns Bantu before preaching to the Bantus. This is the more necessary because once the lecture or discussion has begun, digressions on the meaning of words tend to bore uneducated audiences and even to awaken distrust. There is no subject in which they are less interested than Philology. Our problem is often simply one of translation. Every examination for ordinands ought to include a passage from some standard theological work for translation into the vernacular. The work is laborious but it is immediately rewarded. By trying to translate our doctrines into vulgar speech we discover how much we understand them ourselves. Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean."

(Ibid, pg. 91-92)

Lewis provides a list of word examples to demonstrate his point, some of which remain apt. 'Creature,' for example, means 'animal' both to Lewis' listeners, and to those whom I have spoken with personally. It is never applied to humans. Likewise, the Immaculate Conception means the 'Virgin Birth' of Jesus, both then, and in my experience, now. To this list I would make some additions, as it appears that Lewis had not yet encountered these altered definitions.

'Faith' always means 'blind faith' to the sceptic, and it never means simply 'belief,' or lesser still, 'trust.' 'Charity' means 'donations to a good cause', rather than 'love'. 'Love' means either 'erotic love' or 'tolerance', and even sometimes 'acceptance', of everything done by another, even when one might personally disapprove. It almost never, in the mind of the sceptic, means the 'love of one's neighbour as one loves oneself' that is found in the Bible, and means that we must view every single human being as equally sacred and important no matter what. 'Scandal' means a political or public scandal (usually involving some sort of improper sexual activity, or the taking of money in some dishonest fashion). It never means behaviour that causes others to fall into sin (the traditional definition found in Christianity). And finally, the 'apologist' is not a 'defender' (at least not of anything worth defending), but is, rather, a clever (but probably dishonest) person who tries to confuse issues and make elaborate arguments intent only on building a tour de force.

Lewis tells us that it is no use trying to force the listener to accept our definition of a word. We must meet him on his ground, and understand his language. Period. Here, though I would like to argue with him, I am compelled to agree. I understand Meta's frustration, for example, with the sceptic that claims the doctrine of the Trinity is an abuse of the idea of the 'person'. Meta is right, of course, that the entire concept of the person arose from the debates, and early struggles, to understand the nature of the Christian God, but it hardly does any good to argue this point, thereby winning the battle, and yet losing the apologetical war. We must instead look for language that the sceptic will accept and understand since communication is, very simply, the means by which the exchange of ideas between two or more individuals takes place. If the language serves to impede the communication, then it must be altered. The argument would be self evident if we were talking about Bantus, yet it is something that we (like Lewis) must keep in mind constantly when discussing Christianity with English speaking sceptics.



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